Contact and Coil | Nearly In Control



Renaming “Best Practices”

Ok, so I’ve complained about “Best Practices” before, but I want to revisit the topic and talk about another angle. I think the reason we go astray with “Best Practices” is the name. Best. That’s pretty absolute. How can you argue with that? How can any other way of doing it be better than the “Best” way?

Of course there are always better ways to do things. If we don’t figure them out, our competitors will. We should call these standards Baseline Practices. They represent a process for performing a task with a known performance curve. What we should be telling employees is, “I don’t care what process you use, as long as it performs at least as well as this.” That will encourage innovation. When we find better ways, that new way becomes the new baseline.

In case you haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and its sequel, Lila, Pirsig describes two forms of quality: static and dynamic. Static quality are the things like procedures, and cultural norms. They are a way that we pass information from generation to generation, or just between peers on the factory floor. Dynamic quality is the creativity that drives change. Together they form a ratchet-like mechanism: dynamic quality moves us from point A to point B, and static quality filters out the B points, throwing out the ones that fall below the baseline.

I’ve heard more than one person say that we need to get everyone doing things the same way, and they use this as an argument in favour of best practices. I think that’s wrong. We have baseline practices to facilitate knowledge sharing. They get new employees up to speed fast. They allow one person to go on vacation while another person fills in for them. They are the safety net. But we always need to encourage people go beyond the baseline. It needs to be stated explicitly: “we know there are better ways of doing this, and it’s your job to figure out what those ways are.”



  • Ken · March 3, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Hey Scott,

    Great post. I’m always challenged by finding that balance, where you encourage people to explore/try new methods and keeping the technology simple, practical and functional. Often what Bob believes is newer and better might not be solidly thought through, and/or easy for an electrician to understand and/or troubleshoot. The flip-side is there’s lots of company’s who never innovate and never improve.

    Do you have any ideas on how to incubate new ideas in a non-mission critical state (i.e. R&D) and evaluate before they go to the plant floor? What about some sort of performance metric that can be used to evaluate objectively the effectiveness of a new technique/idea/concept to try to seperate the emotion and attachment of the creator from the final performance? These are ideas I’ve had, but never really had solid strategies to take further than that.

    When I did a lot of 1394 motion control, we were a small group of 5 or 6 people and we ‘evolved’ the base code that was used as a starting point for each application. It was very dynamic. People fed new ideas back into the group and if they made sense they were incorporated into the template. It allowed us to really develop a very solid logic strategy that compensated for a somewhat ‘buggy’ motion controller. I find that strategy works well when you’re a handful and not-so-well when you’re 100 people.

  • Author comment by Scott Whitlock · March 4, 2011 at 7:47 am

    @Ken – I agree that innovation doesn’t scale. That’s why companies like Google that started out innovative, and even make massive efforts to stay innovative, still have a hard time. Apple is the obvious exception, but a lot of that falls onto Jobs’ shoulders. Looking at those two examples, it seems to be a top-down solution. Management needs to be innovative, and create a culture of innovation, where failure is an option. That’s for “knowledge companies”.

    When you’re talking about processes on the plant floor, in manufacturing, fostering innovation is hard. Manufacturing creates this clash between workers and management. It’s like two cultures that don’t understand each other. It’s my experience, though, that the workers like the pride that comes with working in the “best” plant, be that the most efficient, best quality, etc. I think management needs to put aside a budget explicitly for R&D, and then tell the workers that the resources are up for grabs, if they have ideas that they want to try out.

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